Watchouts’ for work site wellness programs

Don’t let the unexpected derail your efforts

By Patricia Halo, CEBS

(This is the first of two articles. The conclusion will be in the November issue of Employee Health & Fitness.)

Although employers who offer a wellness or health promotion program for employees may have a variety of goals in mind — improving morale and productivity, reducing health claim costs, keeping up with competition to name a few — they all agree that making mistakes is costly and wastes resources. More than that, if a program is viewed by employees as substandard or of minimal value to them, it will fail and leave a lasting bad impression.

Today, there is a proliferation of wellness programs, but little uniformity in their offerings, how they are established, who pays for them, and the methods by which they are managed and provided. Some employers consider a wellness program one that provides work site exercise classes during lunch and an occasional seminar; others have widespread services from health newsletters and nurse call centers to on-site screening and early intervention programs for major medical conditions.

Perhaps a general definition is in order: A work site wellness program is one that educates and informs employees and their families about health risks and conditions; provides work site resources to encourage earlier diagnosis and meaningful intervention with such conditions; and promotes healthier behaviors through policies and programs designed for that purpose.

But there are "watchouts," involved. These are problems that occur without warning that can capsize a program. They can occur at any stage: when you are planning a program, selecting a wellness provider, publicizing the program, funding it, during its implementation, or in the reporting and monitoring stage. Attention to those watchouts can help you make adjustments or redirect your program for better results:

Watchout #1. The planning stage: Many programs fail at this stage due to lack of planning and foresight.

Get approvals well in advance from supervisors, funding authorities, employee representatives, and other managers.

Identify who will be responsible in your organization for the program or service, and make sure the department or person is willing and capable.

If a committee is making a decision about a program, be sure it understands any limitations that apply and the resources available.

Research staff or organizational resources you can tap to provide or assist with the program — meeting rooms, administrative needs, staff nurses, bulletin boards, and so forth.

Locate outside resources to allow for choices about who will provide the program.

Identify any funding needs and how they will be met.

This checklist can save untold wasted energy, and keep your wellness plans on a safer road to success.

Watchout #2. Selecting a program and its provider: Here are some business guidelines to follow:

Be sure you understand the program and how it works, including what employees can expect to gain from it and what is expected from your organization.

Look into the program and provider(s) available.

Check credentials (licenses, necessary certifications, or permits).

Ask for references to review the track record of the program or providers elsewhere, including their reputation for quality services.

Compare the cost and service level for each choice, recognizing that the least expensive option may not always be the best one.

Require a written agreement that lists the services to be provided and who will provide them, including their credentials and experience. Specify cost and include any requirements for minimum participation or maximum numbers to be served. This should include any special needs or limitations, such as hours of availability.

Require insurance coverage from any provider, typically $1 million in general liability coverage, in case of any injuries due to the program. A certificate of insurance should be made out with your organization as an additional named insured.

Be aware of good resources for impartial references and information, such as the telephone book, your local hospital, a branch of nonprofit groups such as the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, or American Diabetes Association.

Watchout #3. Funding your program: Getting support from your organization or from outside sources will be necessary for a viable program. You can’t rely upon volunteers and free services to meet all of your wellness needs:

Decide who should pay — employees only, a percentage from the employer, only program participants, bargaining units, company vendors, your health plan administrator, or some combination of any or all of those. A uniform policy and decisions about funding are needed before you offer a program to employees.

Determine which services should be and are covered by your health plan. Identify the restrictions and impact of having certain on-site diagnosis and intervention services covered by discussing them with your health plan advisor or staff. You may save money by following plan guidelines and make helpful services more available to your employees.

Negotiate the best program for the least amount of money. Remember, a discounted program makes sense when a provider is local and may view it as good public relations, volume buying, and an entree to a new market. There is less overhead for the program if you advertise it, collect the fees, and provide the setting in which it is conducted.

Keep the cost reasonable to employees. Your program choices may be limited by the reality of ultimate cost to the employee. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by designing a top-quality program that no one can afford.

Allocate your limited resources carefully with an eye on the total budget.

Don’t spend a majority of your money for wellness on one grandiose program that only appeals to a small segment of your work force. Nor should you spend most of your funding during one season of the year, leaving the balance of the year empty.

[Editor’s Note: Pat Halo is a president of Halo Associates, a wellness consulting firm in New City, NY. She can be reached at: (914) 638-3438. This article is the first in a two-part series.]